Lies and Leadership


I’m surprised that lying doesn’t feature more dominantly in the Western moral code.  It’s there, but it seems buried in a list of sins that are mostly concerned with negative effects to the self or another person.  Of the sinful things that people do, I think lying is perhaps the most harmful.  Lies can be much farther reaching and impacting than any of the other sins.  Lies affect more than the self and a victim;  they can gravely affect many people.  Lies can even incite war and genocide.

I think it’s important to keep a few things in mind.  Not all untruths are lies, and not all lies have the same severity.  I place untruths into these four categories:

Ignorance:

Untruths may be stated with honest intentions, believing that what was said it is true.  These are not lies, they are simply untruths, born of the speaker’s ignorance.

Lies of omission:

These occur when something is known to be true, and that truth is relevant, but a choice is made to not reveal the truth.  It’s debatable if this is less hurtful than an active lie.

White lies:

This is when an untruth is spoken, but it is done with good intentions, to prevent negativity that may result from the truth being known.  It might be said to lead the listener to do something beneficial for the self or others.  Again, it’s severity is debatable.

Lies:

These are actively intentional untruths, said with confidence and authority, knowing full well what the truth is, and stating otherwise anyway.  They are said to manipulate, fool, and coerce others.  They are said to protect and promote the liar, so he can manipulate, fool, and coerce others for his own benefit.

Briefly, there are levels of severity in outright lies.  We don’t think much about a 4 year old claiming the dog ate all the ice cream.  We call the child out, explain why lying is bad, and move on.

I want to talk about adults who know better.  I’m not so concerned with the lie itself, because a lie told in a vacuum is harmless.  I’m not so concerned with its effect on the individual who committed it, because that is an isolated thing which affects no one else.  What concerns me is the lie’s effect on others, in particular when those others are many in number.  When a lie is committed, it can affect the perceptions that people have and as a result affect the actions that they take.

A lie told to one person is damaging.  If believed, the person who is lied to will take action (or refrain from taking action) based on false information.  That action will be counter to what the person would otherwise do had he known the truth.  That action is thereby counter to his own best interest.

A lie told to many people is more damaging.  The total damage done is the amount done to an individual, multiplied by the number of people affected, and then grown even further due to the mob effect influencing yet more people.  The more people believe a lie, and the more that lie is perpetrated, the more believable the lie becomes.   A lie believed by many people will cause them all to act against their own interest.  An entire culture can destroy itself if it is not acting based on the truth.

A lie told to the masses by an authority figure is the most damaging.  It is egregious!  Holding rank in a social group naturally imparts credibility to whatever is said.  Rank and celebrity alone cause words to carry more weight than those of the average citizen.  Because of the vast potential for damage and abuse, those in power must be held accountable to the highest standards of truth.  I cannot state this strongly enough:  It is absolutely unacceptable for an authority figure to lie.  Leaders are responsible for the well being of their group;  Lying causes that group to act against their own well being.  When caught out, leaders who lie must be removed from power, punished, and given as an example of what we should abhor.

Categories: Ethics, Philosophy

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